Friday, June 05, 2009

Canada's Forgotten Cartoonists: Duncan MacPherson, Bert Grassick

By special request from my pal, Jeff Norwell, here are some gorgeous examples of Duncan MacPherson's early work for MacLean's magazine.

I hadn't really intended to include MacPherson in this week's series because I don't consider him a "forgotten cartoonist"...

His entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia tells us MacPherson was "regarded as having been one of Canada's best political cartoonists, Macpherson received the ORDER OF CANADA, the Royal Academy Medal, The CANADA COUNCIL's Molson Prize and six National Newspaper awards for his work at the Toronto Star."

I have wanted to show you these beautiful drawings by MacPherson (so reminiscent of the work of one of my favourite illustrators, Robert McCloskey) for a very long time. So Jeff's request gives me an excuse to do that this week.

And though MacPherson is probably not forgotten by Canadians, I suspect this tremendously talented cartoonist is unknown by readers from other countries.

What might be forgotten is some of the interesting techniques the young MacPherson experimented with in his early days...

... before settling into the more typical inked line style that one expects to see from an editorial cartoonist. Here's an early example of what would eventually become his well known intricately detailed ink drawing.

As this brief note from 1951 mentions, MacPherson burst on the scene at Maclean's right out of art college - but the then 27-year-old artist had been working professionally for several years while simultaneously attending school.

Sharing MacPherson's designation as an editorial cartoonist (as well as being a fellow regular contributor to MacLean's) - but far more likely to qualify as "forgotten" - is Bert Grassik.

Grassick's work had a very direct, energetic quality that I think will be much appreciated by my fellow "ink studs" - his lines look like he attacked the page with gusto! Grassick had an admirable ability to say a lot with relatively little in the way of finicky detail.

This kind of 'visual shorthand' is sometimes dismissed as simple or easy... but it takes tremendous skill and understanding of both your subject matter and your drawing equipment to do what Bert Grassick did. He managed to make it look effortless.

"Charles Albert Grassick was born in 1909 in Victoria, B.C. and soon after moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba where he grew up with his three brothers. When Grassik was 13, his father died, and the boy was forced to quit school and go to work to help support his family. In spite of numerous cartooning awards from the Winnipeg Tribune for his submissions it was felt that he should provide for the family while his older brother was sent to art school."

"Due to years of noisy factory work he became hearing impaired in both ears causing him to become isolated, quiet and reserved."

"At the age of 20 (1929) he hopped a freight train to Toronto to seek his fortune and was hired on first at Rabjohn Enterprises, then at Clement Saila & Co. as an illustrator."

"By the beginning of the 1950's his recognition gained him a position as the daily political cartoonist for the Toronto Telegram where he remained throughout the decade (1959). He had a short foray into the new frontier of television as the caricaturist for a game show on CBC entitled "Whozit" where a guest panel was given verbal clues while he sketched visual ones until someone guessed the right answer. However it was short lived and not to his introverted liking."

"His often award winning cartoons garnered attention from many sources including that of Mayor Nathan Phillips. He then proceeded to join the Disney team at Canaline (again with Clem Saila) where he remained until the age of 73."

"He also freelanced cartoons regularly for MacLean's Magazine and several other publications throughout his career and taught cartooning at the Ontario College of Art. Bert Grassick died in 1998 at the age of 89."

* Here I must thank my friend, Jaleen Grove, for undertaking the Herculean task of putting together The Index of Canadian Illustrators wiki . If not for Jaleen's efforts, I would have only been able to tell you the above cartoons were done by "someone named Grassik". The biographical information above is taken from Bert Grassik's entry on Jaleen's site.

Of course there were plenty of other Canadian cartoonists who we have (mostly) forgotten... but they will have to wait for another occasion. For now, we're done with this topic.


  1. Beautiful work here, especially enjoy Grassick, who reminds me of both Patterson and Harry Devlin. Great bold inking.

  2. I would add that Duncan MacPherson's political cartoons were the best we've ever had, in terms of drawing style (he was edging toward being Canada's Mort Drucker, IMO) and perceptive wit in his subject matter. He struck me as the most literate cartoonist we've ever had.

  3. Shane and Black Pete;

    Thank you both for your comments and insight!

    I was also reminded of Russell Patterson when I saw Grassik's work - but I'm not that familiar with Harry Devlin... will have to do a little research on him. As weird as this may sound, Grassik's inking and character construction reminds me a little of one of the cartoonists who drew Sad Sack comics for Harvey... does anyone else see that?

    Regarding MacPherson, I never really followed his editorial cartooning very closely. I always saw the collections at the library, but tended to avoid them as a kid because of the impenetrable (for a kid) political subject matter. Later, when I was old enough to appreciate that sort of stuff, I preferred the work of my hometown paper's (The Hamilton Spectator) editorial cartoonist, "Blaine" - who was cut more from the cloth of the bold inkers like Grassik than the detailed 'engraving stylists' like MacPherson. But both you and Jeff have nothing but praise for DM, so I will bow to your authority on this one :^)

  4. Hey Leif, "de gustibus non est disputandem": there's no arguing taste! :)

  5. haha... "... unless you're embroiled in a debate on David Apatoff's blog!"


    I should emphasize that I completely fell in love with MacPherson's early work shown in this post - so unexpected when my only (passing) exposure to him was those collections at the library all those years ago. Does anyone know if these early variations of style were ever continued by DM?

    What I really take away from seeing these ( esp. the 'School Days' drawings, is what a natural draughstman he was... his abilty to give the people in his drawings "weight" and movement... similar to Frank Frazetta's uncanny natural ability, if you see what I mean.

    Truly a remarkable talent!

  6. Thanks for the Duncan Macpherson images! He was sort of the reason that I got into art in the first place. I was so taken by his work when he worked for the Star and I remember watching on tv an NFB film on the history of political and editorial cartooning in Canada called "The Hecklers" that I decided to pursue art. I think that I was 16 at the time and I was into B&W editorial cartoons! Great way to get girls, eh?

    Did I ever tell you that I used to work with his son, Ian, when I taught at Central Tech here in Toronto?

    I remember an art school event one night at Metro Hall, sort of a gala night showing the work of alumnis and former teachers at CT, Duncan was an alumnis and there were some of his work on display, and Ian brought his mother, Duncan's widow, and was nice enough to introduce me to her and I told her what an influence Duncan's work had on me. She was very flattered that Duncan's work had that much of an effect on me.

  7. Right on, Leif! After one go-round with David, I've decided to avoid his Comments section like the plague. But I learn a great deal from his blog otherwise.

  8. I remember an anecdote about Duncan M. at the height of his success and powers, wherein a writer (in MacLeans Magazine, before it became a right-wing rag, or maybe Weekend Magazine toward the end of its existence; I forget)interviewed DM at length and inserted an incident when the two of them were walking along a sidewalk in early winter.

    Dm spotted a police cruiser parked not faraway, gathered up some snow and heaved a snowball at it. Not only did it hit the cruiser, but the occupant got out and approached them. Turns out the cop had gone to school with DM, so no charges were laid. The writer was making the point of DM's iconoclastic and anti-authority nature, expressed spontaneously in a hurled snowball.

  9. That's a great anecdote, Pete - thanks!

  10. Oh why can't todays cartoonist draw such good political cartoons. The 50s really were a great era of political cartoons. Beautiful work,

    take care, Julie

  11. .....Fantastic Lief.....

  12. "Oh why can't todays cartoonist draw such good political cartoons. "

    ....mmmmm gee, that's because they teach you to get a "style" instead of honing a "craft".

  13. Thanks for the post! I've used it on my blog...

  14. Molly9:49 AM

    I'm very proud to say that Bert Grassick was my grandfather. It's amazing to see that there are still people recognizing his amazing talent.

    Thankyou for highlighting his career, I'm sure he would be incredibly honoured.

    1. Anonymous11:47 AM

      Then we are related as your grandfather was my great uncle.His younger brother Forbes was my maternal Grandfather!!

    2. And Pat was mine.

  15. Anonymous5:52 PM

    Brought back alot of memories

  16. Just found this today because I was commenting on some of Brian Gable's work for the Globe & Mail. Got me thinking of McPherson's work so I went searching.

    Thanks for sharing all of these! I was a kid when McPherson was at his peak but I remember them well, partly because I have a few of his originals. He knew and hung out with my mum and dad during WWII in London. He did a sketch of both of them plus a few others. I feel quite proud to have them still!

  17. David Milne lived in Uxbridge then and I occasionally played with his son David. David's mother tried to repay some kindness showed by another schoolmate's mother by offering her one of David's oil paintings. The mother handed it back sniffing "I wouldn't hang that in the house.'

    Dr. Carl and Sheila Puterbough were dear friends of our family too. Carl made the mistake of turning down an offer of a painting for some dental work from David Milne too.

    Later Duncan Macpherson moved to town. My dad told me a story about sitting with Duncan and David Milne on the train to Toronto. Somewhere near Stouffville David pointed out the window and remarked what a beautiful green this haystack was.
    Duncan said he was crazy that haystack was red.
    Dad said he didn't say anything but that haystack sure looked yellow to him

    Duncan was a wild man. He was banned for life from the Uxbridge Legion at least 3 times.
    One time he took my mother to the Stouffville Sales Barn auction to buy some garden tools. Duncan bid and got a huge box of garden tools for a dollar. There was an axe, a shovel, a rake, and a hoe even. but that came with a dozen or so old cellar window screens. As they carried them to the car Mother asked Duncan what she was going to do with all the screens. Don't you know anything? says Duncan as opened the nearest car door and threw them in the back seat and walked away.

  18. I have four original MacPherson signed pictures never published or printed . Would anyone know what they would be worth ? Two are of Pierre Trudeau one is of Margret Thatcher and the other is of John Diefenbaker.

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